Vegetarian Valhalla

Twenty seven million pigs get slaughtered, processed, and wrapped each year by Smithfield Hams. That's roughly the equivalent of butchering and packaging the entire human populations of America's largest 32 cities — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas....

This grisly image, indelibly caged in my head for the past few months, comes courtesy of a Rolling Stone magazine article called "Boss Hog" ("the dark side of the other white meat"). Such stories regarding the corporate food industry inevitably lead me to contemplate spending the rest of my life subsisting on berries and nuts. And only those I forage myself. At the very least they put me in the mood for a clean, honest, vegetarian meal, preferably whipped up by a chef of Asian or Indian persuasion. Sadly finding this in Miami-Dade County is more difficult than foraging for berries and nuts. Or so I thought, until disappointment with a new vegetarian restaurant called Ocean Drive Fusion propelled me to return to the more-established Guru Fine Indian Cuisine — which was so good I have sworn never again to make blanket statements about the local lack of decent vegetarian fare.

Guru struck a chord with South Beach residents from the time it opened in 2004. I hadn't been for quite a while, but lately more and more acquaintances have been hectoring me to pay it a visit. The loungy, minimally designed, 40-seat room serves as a cool, informal setting for a wide array of traditional meat-based Indian dishes, from chicken tandoori to lamb vindaloo. Guru also touts "classic selections" such as churrasco steak and cajun salmon — options for the outvoted who get dragged here against their will. We stuck to vegetarian fare for the sake of thematic considerations. And also for our well-being.


Guru Fine Indian Cuisine

Guru Fine Indian Cuisine, 232 12th St, Miami Beach; 305-534-3996. Open for dinner daily 5:00 p.m. to midnight, Sunday brunch noon to 3:00 p.m.

Ocean Drive Fusion, 1501 Collins Ave, Miami Beach; 305-673-2590. Open for lunch and dinner Sunday through Thursday noon to 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon to midnight.

Menus come encased in clunky metallic picture frames that are placed upon the tables in a series of loud thuds. I suppose it makes them easy to wipe clean with Windex, but I still don't think this is Guru's best idea. Permit me to also suggest raising the height of the bar stools adjacent to a counter up front by at least six inches. I dined alone there one night and felt like a kid at the grownups' table.

No complaints regarding the food. For starters we pigged out — oops, sorry — on a pair of crustily crumbed vegetable cutlets, with soft interiors of pureed beets, carrots, potatoes, and peas matched with sweet-hot tomato-onion chutney that positively sparkled on both palate and plate. Vegetable samosas lifted spirits, too, teepee-shaped crusts filled with curried, cumined potatoes and peas.

Prices have crept upward since Guru's inception: The fourteen vegetarian offerings are all either $14.95 or $15.95; other entrées run from $15.95 to $19.95. That's still pretty good for what you get — and what you get has gotten a recent upgrade, too. Main courses are placed in the center of the table, and each diner is presented with a large, square white plate artfully arranged with a neat mold of rice; a scoop of mayonnaise-based potato/vegetable salad (in dire need of seasoning); and a demitasse of soup — on one evening a dainty mulligatawny, on another visit an equally delicate lentil.

Entrées were uniformly delicious. Some, like shahi korma, are traditionally meat-based dishes presented in vegetarian mode — specifically a mixed sauté of cauliflower, mushrooms, peas, carrots, and almond slivers in a creamy, almost Thai-like coconut sauce, slightly tinged with saffron. Kofta curry, generally a meatball dish, here is a trio of luscious potato-tofu-onion-balls in mild, savory gravy. Other offerings are classically vegetarian, like channa masala, a light, spicy mix of chickpeas with potatoes, tomatoes, and onions, flavored with lemon, bay leaves, garlic, garam masala, cilantro, and a piquant kick of green chilies and cumin. Paou bhaji also has meatless roots, this street food of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) made from mashing and cooking potatoes into a gravy consistency, and then frying it with other vegetables and spreading onto dinner rolls.

For dessert gajjar halwa brought a stiff puddle of grated carrots cooked down and cooled with almonds, raisins, and cardamom, but we preferred rasmalai: sweet, chewy paneer cheese dumplings plunked into a martini glass of evanescent orange saffron sauce.

Guru is one of those wonderful neighborhood restaurants that struggles a bit at the start, clumsily finds its niche, grows, matures, and finally blossoms into a respectable dining establishment. To say Ocean Drive Fusion is struggling to find its niche is an understatement on the order of stating that Smithfield pigs don't lead exceedingly pleasant lives. Simply figuring out the name of the place is difficult enough, with signage on the property indicating "Vegetarian Indian Cuisine," and also "Natural Organic Food," both accompanied by postings of totally different menus. In another section, which appears to be a separate entity but is not, an electric sign lights up for "Hot Pizza." A jewelry store and art gallery share the space as well. Ocean Drive CONfusion!

The indoor portion of the eatery is handsomely decorated, but the intense aroma of burning incense, while possibly advantageous for meditating, listening to Enya, or masking pot smoke, is not conducive to dining. So we sat outdoors in an area that feels makeshift, and looked over the menu(s). The Ocean Drive Fusion selections comprise a potpourri of global vegetarian fare, with appetizers running the gamut from French onion soup to edamame to three-mushroom pizza to hummus to tortilla chips with guacamole. Entrées travel with similar abandon, from pad Thai noodles to lasagna to chicken curry to crab piccata; and by chicken and crab, I mean soybean-based chicken and crab. We selected from the far more concise Indian bill of fare, to no small degree because I had espied Indian cooks in the open kitchen and trusted they'd make a better shindi biryani than eggplant parmigiana. In retrospect, looks like that may have been a faulty call.

A kind, if clueless, waitress started us with fried pappadam wafers and a mint "chutney" of chimichurri consistency. Vegetable samosas seeded with caraway were made of tasty, flimsy paratha bread that had a wheaty, homemade quality to it, and a main course of dal makhni delivered lentils flavorfully braised with onions, tomatoes, ginger, and spices. Everything else we tried needed help.

The menu description of tandoori chicken masala clearly indicates "soya grilled chicken," and another dish is labeled "butter soya chicken masala," but the wording for Lahori fried fish simply states "perch fish marinated in old Lahori style spices" — leading you to think you're getting real fish, not soya fish. More questionable, though, is whether anybody, even a vegetarian, is interested in eating soy-based perch. I don't think so, nor do I believe this rendition will create a demand for the product — although the washed-out seafood flavor of the fish-shape discs, similar to that of some fast food filet-o-fish, was fairly edible when dunked into the lemony yogurt dip that came alongside tandoori masala chicken. The faux-chicken cutlets would have likewise passed muster, but that masala sauce was awful — like ragu that had been scorched in the pan. The butter soya chicken was only a little better, with cubes of tofu consistency afloat in what tasted like spicy cream of tomato soup. A smattering of grilled, fresh peppers, snow peas, and cauliflower comes on the side of most main plates, which run $13.95 to $15.95, but for a vegetarian restaurant there are surprisingly few other vegetables. Basmati rice likewise accompanies entrées. Ours was cold.

During both visits to Fusion there were few diners outdoors, and fewer indoors. Yet we waited for menus, for water, for the check — not a great way for a new restaurant to build a customer base. I sincerely suggest to the owners of this fledgling eatery that they walk four blocks south and study what the Guru gang has done with Indian vegetarian cooking — maybe take notes on how to run a low-key local business, too. Because if the Fusion folks don't straighten things out soon, the ultracompetitive South Beach dining market will leave them floundering as fruitlessly as a pig-in-a-poke.

Guru Fine Indian Cuisine, 232 12th St, Miami Beach; 305-534-3996. Open for dinner daily 5:00 p.m. to midnight, Sunday brunch noon to 3:00 p.m.

Ocean Drive Fusion, 1501 Collins Ave, Miami Beach; 305-673-2590. Open for lunch and dinner Sunday through Thursday noon to 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon to midnight.


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